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Road Map: Beyond Health Care, Fall Agenda Is Crowded

Time flies when you’re getting screamed at by constituents and organized protesters over your party’s plans for health care reform.

[IMGCAP(1)]Still, intrepid Members of Congress return to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to start another long legislative slog in which health care will color everything else they try to do from now until a likely December adjournment date.

Now that Democrats have had the entire August recess to ruminate on their public relations failures and suffer a few new ones — “death panels,— anyone? — the party is gearing up for what it hopes will be a defining speech by President Barack Obama before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night.

With Obama set to outline more details and with the White House hinting that he’s willing to drastically scale back his original goals for health care legislation, Democrats say they are waiting with bated breath for Obama to rescue the troubled Congressional effort.

“I think everybody is sort of on pause and letting the president have the floor,— said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

Once the president speaks, Senate Democrats said they are apt to try to adhere as closely as possible to the president’s outline for health care.

“At this point, we are ready to follow the leader,— the senior Senate Democratic aide said.

That feeling pretty much sums up where Democrats are, given most assume that bipartisan talks in the Senate Finance Committee are doomed to fail. The time-consuming negotiations between three Finance Democrats and three Republicans appeared to buckle in August as key GOP negotiators — Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Mike Enzi (Wyo.) — made several statements in which they appeared to back away from their roles in the talks. Last week, their spokesmen attempted to swat away rumors that the two are close to walking away from the table. The six met by teleconference Friday and plan to meet in person again Tuesday.

But the White House doesn’t seem to believe that Grassley and Enzi are in it to win it and last week began making public overtures to Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) — the third GOP Finance negotiator — about accepting her proposal to create a trigger for any public insurance option. Under that scenario, a public plan would only be created if private insurers could not find a way to cut costs and increase coverage.

All the efforts, at this point, appear focused on finding the 60 votes needed to beat back a near-certain GOP filibuster. With Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) death two weeks ago, Senate Democrats are only 59 Members strong, but they may not be able to count on a handful of their own centrists — for example, Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) — to vote for a health care package. That reality has made courting Snowe as well as her home-state colleague, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), even more important.

Of course, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) continues to ponder ways to bypass the 60-vote threshold by using budget reconciliation rules. However, Democratic aides said last week that it was uncertain whether they could push an entire health care reform measure under rules that require every provision to have a budgetary impact.

Regardless, Senate Democrats are looking to have a bill on the floor as early as Sept. 28 in order to finish up by before a likely weeklong October recess that is expected to begin on the 9th. Under that tentative timeline, the majority would hope to have a conference report on the president’s desk before Thanksgiving.

However, the logistics are far from certain, given Senate Democrats have not yet settled on a floor strategy that will optimize their chances for success. One senior aide said if Senate leaders come up with a bill that can garner 60 votes — i.e., a bipartisan bill — the Senate would move on health care before the House. If they need to use filibuster-proof reconciliation rules to push it through, the House would likely lead off the floor debates, the aide said.

Meanwhile, the House is also in the throes of an intraparty health care debate, with Democrats divided between pro-public-option liberals and skittish moderates who, like Snowe, want a “trigger— to indefinitely delay any public insurance plan.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowed again last week that a bill without a public option could not pass the House, despite the White House’s movement toward a trigger.

But just because health care is all anyone wants to talk about, Democrats aren’t giving up on pushing a number of other controversial measures this fall. Reid summed up the hefty agenda in a statement provided by his office, “Senate Democrats will continue to aggressively push legislation that boosts our economy and helps working families build a better future. Key items on this list are delivering on health insurance reform and clean energy, providing jobs by improving our infrastructure, and reining in the behavior on Wall Street that contributed to the economic downturn. We also intend to pass legislation that makes college more affordable and invest in critical domestic priorities.—

This month, Reid will attempt to pass as many appropriations bills as he can before the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. Democratic aides predicted that they might be able to complete three spending bills — Commerce, Justice and science; Interior and environment; and Transportation and Housing and Urban Development — before the end of the month. The Senate has already passed four, while the House has passed all 12. Senate Democrats readily acknowledge they will have to pass a continuing resolution for any bills that have not been conferenced with the House or haven’t been passed by the Senate.

Congress also must pass another extension of the highway funding bill before the end of September. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) wants to pass a $500 billion long-term reauthorization, but leadership aides say that’s a long shot. The Obama administration and the Senate have signaled they don’t want to do a long-term bill until after the midterms, and rank-and-file Members are nervous about having to back another tax hike to pay for it.

The House also is likely to pass some financial market reforms pushed by Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Frank’s committee has been churning out reform proposals, and regulatory reforms could give Democrats a feel-good breather amid the titanic health care struggle.

But several Senate aides said regulatory reform in that chamber will likely come next year.

The Senate has also had to push back its climate change debate plans, with some aides saying it’s unlikely a bill will make it to the floor this year.

Reid has extended his deadline for having legislation ready for the floor from Sept. 28 until an unspecified time later this fall.

And regardless of whether budget reconciliation is used for health care, it will be used to eliminate federal subsidies for private student loans in favor of a single federal solution.

That legislation is expected to save tens of billions that will be plowed back into aid to students.

Shepherded by Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), a top Pelosi lieutenant, the student loan bill should be a slam-dunk in the House.

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